New Zealand as model for governments connecting with Muslim communities

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2018

Canterbury Mosque
Canterbury Mosque, Christchurch, until 1999 the world’s southernmost mosque. Source: Wikipedia.

Aliya Danzeisen, lead coordinator of the Women’s Organisation of the Waikato Muslim Association (WOWMA), writes that Muslims in New Zealand have avoided the marginalisation experienced by Muslim communities in North America, Europe and Australia.

The Muslim population of New Zealand, of which I am part, is a vibrant, content and engaged community. We believe in democracy and have embraced it.

In comparison to our Western counterparts, there has been no exodus of young Muslims heading overseas to fight, nor have there been any major acts of terror within our country. As we say in our community, Alhamdullillah (Praise be to God).

There are reasons for the settled and engaged nature of Kiwi Muslims. Two years ago I was invited to a summit on countering violent extremism, an event on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly. A young male participant asked me why representatives of New Zealand were present at the event given that our country had almost no experience of terrorism. My response was that this is precisely why New Zealand should be at the table. I still believe this is true.

New Zealand provides positive role model

There is a positive difference between the way the New Zealand government works with its Muslim communities and the way governments in Europe, the Americas and, even across the ditch in Australia, do. I define this as the “Kiwi Difference” and believe it should serve as a model for others to emulate. That difference is explained below.

New Zealand has a relatively new, largely migrant, Muslim population. Our demographic makeup is broadly similar to that of our OECD counterparts but it does vary, in some respects, from New Zealand’s general population.

In New Zealand women outnumber men, but within its Muslim community males dominate (52 percent male to 48 percent female). The Kiwi Muslim population is also significantly younger than the general population, with over 65 percent, or nearly two-thirds, under the age 35. In contrast, 44 percent of the general Kiwi population is of the same age demographic.

We have fewer elders. Less than five percent of our Muslim community are over the age of 60 in comparison to approximately 20 percent of all New Zealanders.

Kiwi Muslim community “superdiverse”

The Kiwi Muslim community is significantly diverse. Actually it’s “superdiverse” within a “superdiverse” country. A quarter of the population have been born in New Zealand. Nearly 20 percent were born in the Pacific Islands, 25 percent were born in Asia, another 22 percent were born in the Middle East or Africa.

The remainder fall into a category best described as individuals with unique backgrounds. On any given day, for example, a visitor to the Al Jamii Mosque in Hamilton will find individuals from over 50 nationalities speaking a variety of distinct languages who come from a plethora of different cultural and ethnic experiences.

So overall, New Zealand has a young, diverse, male-dominated, largely migrant Muslim community with few elders. This is similar to the situation in other Western countries. So why are New Zealand Muslims so settled in contrast?

Several factors account for this difference. The first is that New Zealand’s core structures and values are consistent with Islam.

In 2010 two Muslim professors based in the United States published an “Islamicity Index” that assessed how “Islamic” countries were, by looking at how consistent country’s laws, policies and procedures were to the core teachings of Islam. The professors considered a country’s economic, legal and governance structure, its human and political rights record, and international relations policies.

When the Index was first applied, New Zealand was found to be the most “Islamically-compliant” country in the world. The study has been conducted at two-year intervals since, and New Zealand is regularly placed in the top five. The average Kiwi may not know this, but most Muslim New Zealanders think this open, democratic country is more Islamic than most Islamic countries and take pride in that fact.

Three stakeholders committed to positive change

In my opinion, however, the most significant reason for the “Kiwi Difference” is New Zealand’s willingness to invest in people. He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata – What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.

Within Aotearoa, three key stakeholders, in particular, are making a positive contribution to the Kiwi Muslim experience.

First I would like to acknowledge the effort that Māori have made, and are still making, to facilitate the integration of the multicultural migrant into this country. At the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, when iwi leaders negotiated with the Crown, they sought assurances that diverse beliefs would be accepted and welcomed.

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Ever since, Maori have been at the forefront of rights advocacy and have fought for minority community views to be given their rightful place in general society. Those efforts have had a significant impact on reducing the separation and racism that Muslims experience.

Similarly, the concept of manaakitanga (hospitality), which Māori offer to care for and support their multicultural manuhiri(guests), has provided migrants with important opportunities to connect to the land and its people in a profound and positive manner. As a result, members of our growing Muslim population feel part of this society and its traditions.

Muslim community willing to engage

The second stakeholder group is the Muslim community and its leaders. Muslim leaders have demonstrated a willingness to engage with their counterparts in central and local government agencies and in other communities.

In the years following September 11, 2001 Muslim leaders have met regularly with government stakeholders, media and other relevant organisations to ensure our community’s views on emerging issues are taken into account and that New Zealand’s reputation and standing is protected globally.

Several Muslim communities have been proactive in developing opportunities for its growing population to practice Islam in a Kiwi context by encouraging their whānau to embrace their Kiwi identity and reach out to the wider community. This has been done through many avenues, not just through the pulpit or within the mosque.

Once again, the Hamilton Muslim community provides us with another example. For the last ten years they have supported the Women’s Organisation of the Waikato Muslim Association (WOWMA) youth programme for Muslim females. The hundreds of young women who have taken part in this programme have received leadership training and have been given opportunities to become more involved in a variety of different community projects.

These young women learn about the history of New Zealand. They are able to connect to the outdoors through educational challenges such as caving, skiing, waka ama. They learn that they too can care and guard this land and its traditions.

New Zealand government as stakeholder

Thirdly, the willingness of the New Zealand government to talk with, and invest in Muslim communities is an important aspect of the positive Kiwi Muslim experience. Following the leadership example of Helen Clark, prime ministers and other high-ranking officials have visited mosques and taken part in discussions about community issues. This dialogue has been substantive and continued.

At a practical level government agencies have offered small grants to assist the Muslim community support its members.

The WOWMA programme came about as a result of ‘a push’ by a manager at the Ministry of Social Development who raised concerns about the way Muslim girls and young women were integrating. She challenged five adult Muslim women to do something about it.

The manager offered capacity building opportunities and seed money to get a programme started. MSD allowed the Muslim women to design the programme, and the young participants to decide for themselves what they needed to progress in life.

This willingness to invest has paid dividends. Over 300 young women have taken part in the programme and are already showing advanced leadership skills and adding value to their own and the wider New Zealand community. Many have developed a strong desire to go into public service here in New Zealand.

The long standing willingness of these three groups – Māori, Muslims and the Crown – to invest in people in an open and forward looking manner continues to pay dividends in ensuring the safety and success of multicultural New Zealand. This is not to say that problems don’t exist or that more is not needed to be done.

It is people

If we go back again to that well known Maori whakatauki – He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata – What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people – we can always find a practical and successful path forward.

We do this by ensuring all new New Zealanders are welcomed and given a place within our society and by supporting them to take advantage of the opportunities offered by this wonderful country with its tradition of transparent democratic governance.

Most importantly, we can do this by acknowledging the generosity and leadership shown by tangata whenua in welcoming us and helping us connect to the land that we feel privileged to live in and call our home.